For decades, well-intentioned food writers have been trying to rescue parsley from the American cook’s indifference. One of the earliest attempts was in 1952, when the New York Times printed a piece championing parsley’s unsung virtues with the headline May Opens Season of Parsley Abundance – Herb Has Many Uses Besides as Garnish.
Despite the media cheerleading, the message doesn’t seem to stick. Or perhaps our shifting appreciation for it is, like parsley itself, too low-key. Elsewhere in the world, parsley is in no need of marketing. It is not just appreciated but ubiquitous in the Middle East, perhaps best illustrated by tabbouleh; in its traditional Lebanese form the parsley, not the cracked wheat, forms the backbone of the salad.
In France, parsley starts dishes and finishes them; it is an essential component of the aromatic foundation that is a bouquet garni, and it defines persillade, the mixture of finely minced garlic and parsley that’s used to add a bloom of flavor at the end of cooking. With garlic and lemon, it is gremolata, Italy’s answer to persillade. Add onion, capers, anchovies and olive oil, and it is salsa verde, an Italian condiment so versatile and compelling, it would do any cook good to stock a batch in the refrigerator at all times.
Parsley once stood taller in the American kitchen. Thomas Jefferson grew both curly and flat-leaf varieties at Monticello, and cooks of his era were wise to the prudence of using parsley early in cooking, and with a generous hand. For specifics, I contacted Omnivore Books in San Francisco, where owner Celia Sack curates a few shelves’ worth of early-American cookbooks. Assistant Kate King emailed me to say that a number of those early cookery books called for parsley extensively in soups and stews – by the handful in a recipe for pigeon soup from The Practical Housewife, printed in 1860; as part of an aromatic base for Mary Randolph’s Mock Turtle Soup of Calf’s Head in The Virginia Housewife (1824).
By the mid-20th century, parsley had been sidelined. Greengrocers, for the most part, kept only curly varieties in stock. Chefs, students of nouvelle cuisine, persisted in creating a garnish out of the frilly leaf, turning it fussy and useless.
Contemporary cookbooks, particularly those with leanings toward Europe and the Mediterranean, foster a broader view. But their message competes with a more ingrained attitude: Parsley is pretty, not to be taken seriously. Which is curious because parsley is a workhorse.
Used as a primary seasoning, parsley can carry a dish; its piney, faintly bitter flavor assumes brighter, rounder tones. Paired with more assertive ingredients, it makes a great unifier, assuring balance and nudging harmony forward. Parsley works more conspicuously to allow the whole to make a greater impression.
In Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace (Scribner, 2012), the author urges readers to buy parsley whenever possible because, she notes, everything needs parsley. Recently, she told me: Think about when parsley is great. It’s great when it’s used copiously, and it’s great when it’s used in conjunction with garlic. Parsley kind of needs a little buddy to reach its full potential.
For cooking, flat-leaf varieties are a little more versatile than the curly kind; their flavor is deeper and sweeter, the leaves generally more tender. Curly parsley can be lovely in a salad, fried or roasted whole, or, it goes without saying, as a garnish. But it must be in top form. Past its prime, curly parsley begins to taste unpleasantly grassy and takes on a plastic texture that won’t win anyone over.